STS-1 Columbia – The Shuttle Program’s First Flight

It happened exactly 20 years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. It was the first American manned spaceflight in six years, following the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It was the beginning of an era that ushered in a new generation of spaceflight technology.

STS-1 Mission Patch

STS-1 Mission Patch – Credit: NASA

It was STS-1, the first of more than 130 flights of the Space Shuttle program.

Shuttle Columbia was selected for the maiden voyage of the program. Not only was this the first crewed flight for the shuttle, it was the first flight period. Shuttle Enterprise had been utilized for flight (and landing) tests within the atmosphere, but wasn’t designed to be space-ready (including not having a heat shield for re-entry).

So Columbia was not only a mission, but a flight test in its own right. Her crew consisted of Commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. Young was already a veteran of the space program, having flown as pilot of the Gemini Program’s first manned flight (Gemini 3 – known around these parts as that time John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich into space), served as commander of Gemini 10, was the command module pilot of Apollo 10 (the “dress rehearsal” for Apollo 11), and also walked on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16. This, however, would be Crippen’s first spaceflight. Both of these men were qualified test pilots, and STS-1 was one heck of a test flight.

At 7:00am on April 12, 1981, after a two-day delay, STS-1 lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center–the same launch pad that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon, and is currently leased to SpaceX where it will serve to create a new type of spaceflight history. The launch was just as flawless as Launch Controller Chuck Hannon wished, when one minute and forty-five seconds prior to lift-off, he told the crew: “Smooth sailing, baby.”

STS-1 Columbia at launch on April 12, 1981

STS-1 Columbia at launch on April 12, 1981 – Credit: NASA

SHUTTLE LAUNCH CONTROL: T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, we’ve gone for main engine start, we have main engine start. And we have lift off of America’s first space shuttle, and the shuttle has cleared the tower.

Minutes later, Columbia and her crew were beginning the first of 37 total orbits to take place over the course of just more than two days. A new era was born, as we became a world with reusable space planes.

The primary mission of STS-1 was to conduct a general check-out of the Space Shuttle system, reach orbit successfully, and land safely back on Earth. Despite a few anomalies, which were recorded and solved for future flights, STS-1 was a smashing success. Orbiter Columbia performed amazingly and would be used for the next four shuttle missions until STS-6, when Challenger became the second orbiter in the fleet.

STS-1 was the solid first step in the three decades-long adventure that was the Space Shuttle program.

SpaceX Continues To Make History

SpaceX is no stranger to making commercial spaceflight history. They were the first private corporation to launch a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit, send a re-supply spacecraft to the International Space Station, and to land their first-stage rockets back on Earth (for potential re-use), among other milestones. They’re also on the cusp of providing transportation services for International Space Station crew members.

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017 – Source: SpaceX

On February 19, 2017, SpaceX accomplished another major feat: They became the first private company to launch from the historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Launch Pad 39A

SpaceX became the first commercial corporation to lease space and operate out of Kennedy Space Center when, in 2014, they signed a 20-year lease for the historic Launch Pad 39A. It was from this launch pad that Apollo 11 blasted off for the Moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on our lunar neighbor. It also hosted the first Space Shuttle mission, as well as some 90 others. Now, and for at least the next two decades, it’s in the hands of SpaceX, further cementing the foothold that the private sector has made in the space program.

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches – Source: Public Domain and SpaceX

Launch and Landing

At 9:39am EST, on February 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited and thundered into the clouds. The rocket was topped with the Dragon capsule, carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg) worth of cargo destined for the International Space Station. Dragon arrived and successfully docked with the ISS a couple of days following launch.

Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA astrophysicist and contributor to myriad space documentary programs, was at Sunday’s launch and graciously shared her experience with me. “Launches are always wonderfully, viscerally exciting,” she said. “The Falcon 9 has a wonderful, big, booming sound, similar to an Atlas, and it puts on a great fireworks show.”

But that wasn’t the only show in store for the lucky spectators in Florida that day. After shoving Dragon into orbit, the Falcon first stage began its 100-kilometer return trip back to Earth. In fewer than 10 minutes following lift-off, the first stage rocket re-emerged through the clouds and landed at Landing Zone 1, just a few miles away from the launch pad. Thaller described the period of suspense in between the launch and the Falcon landing, and said that in some ways there was more anticipation for the landing than there was for the launch.

[N]othing quite prepares you for what happens 7 minutes later, just as the adrenaline is wearing off. Silently, at first, this 230-foot first stage turns around and comes down out of the sky. Smoothly, surreally, a tower the size of a 15 story building just comes and sets itself down. Only once it’s down do you hear the double pop of a sonic boom. It sort of turns your stomach. Things that big are not supposed to just come out of the sky and land. It’s awesome.

Awesome, indeed. See for yourself:

As a kid, I remember watching cartoons that showed rockets landing on various planets. The rockets would turn themselves around and gently land engine-side down. I would always exclaim, “That’s not how rockets work! They burn up, or have parachutes attached and they land in the ocean! How silly.”

Yet, here we are.

I’ve often been jealous about being born too late to experience the race to the Moon. I’ve been somewhat depressed since watching the last Shuttle mission touch down in 2011. But when I take a step back and look at what is occurring today and what we have to look forward to, I can’t help but recognize what a wonderful time it is to be alive.

You can watch the full webcast of the launch on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.